• Director: Michael Gordon
  • Writers: Carl Foreman, based on the stage play by Edmond Rostand
  • Starring: José Ferrer, Mala Powers, William Prince, Morris Carnovsky, Ralph Clanton, Lloyd Corrigan, Virginia Farmer, Arthur Blake, and Albert Cavens
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Actor – José Ferrer)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla or Kanopy (library apps), free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV or Tubi app, stream with subscription on Paramount Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video

There is a new Cyrano movie in theaters (somewhere, I am told, it does not seem to be here in Las Vegas), with the traditional dude with a very silly-looking long nose replaced with the popular actor with dwarfism, Peter Dinklage, and also it’s a musical. A confession, I did not realize until the last month or so that the classic “Cyrano de Bergerac” story is based on a French play from 1897, a play that was originally done entirely in verse. The general story, in which a loquacious lothario who is seen by society as ugly agrees to provide a handsome but tongue-tied young lover with the the right words to woo the beautiful Roxanne, only for complications to ensue because Cyrano loves Roxanne himself, has been told many times over the years on stage and screen. Wikipedia lists the new film (directed by Joe Wright) as the 11th direct adaptation, including two silent films, which leaves me wondering how that actually worked. That does not include different takes on what’s obviously the same material, including a 1950s medieval Japanese version starring Toshiro Mifune, Steve Martin’s 1987 comedy Roxanne, which transplanted the action to contemporary America, and of course multiple modern day “gender swapped” versions, such as 1996’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs, with Jeneane Garofalo’s supposedly mousy radio host helping out the beautiful Uma Thurman. And so on.

Perhaps the most faithful adaptation of that original play, to the point where it sometimes feels like watching a Shakespeare adaptation where they don’t feel comfortable changing any of the words, was 1950’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and so I checked that out the other day. It was based on a stage revival that had recently made bank on Broadway, though nearly all of the cast was changed for the movie version. The biggest holdover was José Ferrer (who had won the first-ever “Best Actor in a Play” Tony Award for the role), who gives an absolute powerhouse performance in the central role that single handedly makes the whole thing work when I don’t think, given that none of the other elements are really there, it has any right to. The people who could get away with this level of stagy declamation for two hours are few, but Ferrer is definitely one of them. If somebody did something like this in 2022, there would be lots and lots of gifs. There were parts of this movie where I found myself waiting for it to be over, and other parts where I was pretty into it, and the latter were entirely the parts of just Ferrer giving speeches. There is one moment where he first meets Christian (William Prince), the guy he ends up helping to woo Roxanne, when Christian tosses off a derisive comment about Cyrano in an attempt to look manly. Ferrer stops, slowly lifts an arm, points at Christian (without ever actually looking at him), and after several seconds says, in a deep, ominous voice, “WHO…………….. is that?” On board.

The rest of this movie is, um, OK I guess, and certainly as a film it’s mostly forgettable. The producers (correctly) surmised that this was probably not going to make a bunch of money, and despite this movie being set at the peak of Versailles-era France, seemingly a costume and/or set designers’ dream, the costumes and sets were done on the cheap and are not particularly elaborate. Other than Ferrer, none of the performances are particularly memorable, either. Prince is a wimpy fop, which, I mean, I suppose is the role, and Mala Powers does a reasonable job of looking hot on balconies as Roxanne. The movie sticks in a couple of swordfight-type scenes that take place offstage in the play, but does so seemingly almost as an after-thought… nobody seems really to have bothered to choreograph any interesting action or anything like that. There is a climactic battle where Christian dies, but as in the play we don’t actually see anything happen, just cut to him getting brought back to the base, wounded. On the plus side, it’s all in the public domain now, so you can get it basically anywhere, and Ferrer’s performance might make it more interesting for students than, say, just reading a translation of the play.

Ferrer’s performance is, however, deservedly remembered, and he ended up winning a Best Actor Oscar for his performance despite the movie not making any money and not really being a critical success otherwise. Ferrer had been born in Puerto Rico, then moved with his family to New York City at the age of two. He was already well-known on Broadway, but the stage role of Cyrano was really the break that made his career. The next year, in 1948, he made his movie debut as playing the Dauphin opposite Ingrid Bergman’s Joan in the technicolor epic Joan of Arc, for which he received nomination for Best Supporting Actor. When he eventually won his award for Cyrano de Bergerac, it was the first Oscar ever given to a Hispanic actor. He would receive one more nomination (for playing the painter Toulouse-Lautrec in 1952’s Moulin Rouge, the same role played by John Leguizamo in the otherwise-unrelated 2001 musical of the same name), then went on to a long and respected career, with supporting roles in a lot of movies you’ve probably heard of up through playing the Emperor of the Universe in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune. “Actors who could convincingly play the Emperor of the Universe” is another exclusive club to which Ferrer belonged. He donated his Oscar to the University of Puerto Rico, but the statuette was stolen in 2000 and now no one knows where it is.

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